Wrong Direction Farm

Identify this Pea

I’d like to know if anyone can help identify what sort of plant we have.  This is a pea (or bean if you prefer) that has been reseeding itself continuously since we moved here.  It only occurs in one weedy corner of the front pasture near the winter yard we use for the pigs.  Because this area is bounded by a fence, a loading chute, a driveway, and a hay storage area, the plants are currently isolated to a 20 x 20 patch.

Pea on Sidewalk

The whole plant, about 40 inches tall.  Picked this weekend.

The most unique aspect of this plant is the stalk.  All along its length it has a double-bladed structure that I think can be called a Phylloclade, but I could be wrong.   This is a fascinating adaptation to allow photosynthesis along the entire length of the stem.  It may explain why the cattle like eating this down to the dirt when given the chance.  Its stalk grows in a segmented fashion, with segments changing direction every four inches or so.

Pea Stalk Close Up

Both the main stalk and the leaf stems are bladed.  This gives a lot of photosynthetic capacity to a plant that doesn’t have a large amount of leaf area compared to other peas and beans.

Other physical aspects:  It grows about three or four feet tall, but it depends on adjacent stalks for support using tendrils.  It can successfully compete with aggressive stands of thistles, burdock, grape vines, and goldenrod.  It flowers continuously from late June until frost, with each new segment taking a shot at flowering and producing peas.  The pea pods fall off as they ripen, which probably helps reseeding if the conditions at one part of the season aren’t ideal. The seeds taste somewhere between garden peas and edamame.  Mature seeds are a bit smaller than most garden peas, and usually look a bit deflated.   The pods aren’t palatable (pigs and cows eat them, but they are just roughage).  The plant will quickly regrow after being grazed or driven over, but I’m not sure how many regrazes or tramplings it can handle.

Pea Stems

Early July with the pods just forming.

It seems to be some sort of winter pea.  I’ve looked through seed catalogs, but all the examples of winter peas I’ve been able to find have normal round pea stalks with a lot more tendrils.

Because of the taste, there is also the remote possibility the plant is some crazy outcross or throwback from hybrid soybeans.  The pods aren’t fuzzy like most soy I’ve seen, and none of the other characteristics seem similar.  I can’t really see this being a soybean, but I’ll leave that as a marginal possibility.

I’ve discussed before the challenges I’ve had with getting annual forages to grow with wet, heavy soils and late planting dates.  A pea like this one that could presumably be broadcast, perhaps frost seeded or graze-tramped, into an existing stand of perennial grasses without any tillage or expensive no-till equipment.  Obviously there would be a big challenge in seed saving at a large enough scale to make this practical, especially with a plant that drops its pods continuously making mechanical harvesting impractical. And from the plant breeding perspective, there are a lot of more productive options that could yield more tons of forage per acre.  But as a grazier the idea of a home-grown, locally-adapted, self-propagating annual legume is appealing.

Breathing Room

I opened up my chainsaw muffler ports today.  The MS290 has always been an OK saw, but it bogs down in full-bar cuts.  When doing heavy limbing and bucking work, speed is everything.  Long, slow cuts wear my arms out, especially on big undercuts.  Even with a brand new, nicely sharpened chain, I end up having to back off frequently as the saw bogs down.  I’m not ready to shell out $800-$1100 to buy a 70-75 CC class chainsaw that I’d like, so I have been looking around for an easy upgrade on my existing machine.

It seems that the only low cost and reasonably guaranteed upgrade is a muffler modification, so after reading a few writeups, I took advantage of an afternoon rain storm to spend some time in the garage today reworking the saw.

The factory muffler has 0.77 square inches of inlet area, but only 0.16 square inches of outlet area, about 15% of the inlet.  That’s a severe amount of restriction.

Original Muffler

Kinda pathetic, just those two itty bitty slots…

I used a drill and files to expand the two small oblong ports into one large port and I added a second exhaust at the top of the muffler.  The combined area of these two outlets is 85% of the inlet.  I left the internal baffle box in place since there were plenty of perforations for air flow.  The new vents are positioned to accommodate the factory spark arrestor screen.

Modified Muffler

Same muffler as above, but with the bigger ports and cleaned up with a wire brush.

I wear ear muffs, so the saw doesn’t seem much louder, but it does feel far more lively in my hands.  That makes sense, since it is no longer trying to exhale through a sippy straw.  I had to retune the high side of the carburetor to richen the fuel/air mixture because the engine is now pumping more air.  I really should pick up an inductive tachometer.  That would help me do a better tuning job by looking at RPMs rather than guessing by ear, but it feels (and smells) like I have a reasonably good tune on the high side.

The saw still bogs down with a bar buried in hickory, but it wears me out a little less than it used to.  There are anecdotes online of dyno testing yielding 20% horsepower gains.  I’m not sure what kind of power increase I’m getting, but if I feel like my saw isn’t letting me down, it won’t be as much of a discouragement to use it. The challenges from wrestling with inadequate tools often transform straightforward jobs into toil and trouble.  If I feel confident in a task, I usually do a better at it.  Even if my saw wouldn’t show any power gain on a dyno, if it sounds like it is doing a better job, I’ll do a better job.  Let me enjoy my fiction.

It’s Here: Pepperoni

We received our batch of pepperoni from the charcuterie shop this afternoon.  This is a custom recipe featuring 100% Wrong Direction Farm pork.  If I were to describe the eating experience, I’d say it starts with the salty/sour pork base, then layers on the aromatics, and finishes off with a flash of red and black pepper.

Sure, you can buy Applegate pepperoni (owned by Hormel, the folks who are so committed to healthy foods that they also produce Spam) and maybe find it a little cheaper pound per pound, but this product is something different.  And something better.  This is from pigs raised on our farm with care and attention, processed in a butcher shop where the employees are known and valued, so they take good care of our animals even through the one brief bad moment in their lives, and then cured into pepperoni by an extraordinarily meticulous group of salami craftspeople.

I’m not sure how to best emphasize this, but what separates this pepperoni from any mass-market natural pepperoni is at the heart of what we hope to achieve at Wrong Direction Farm.  Through each step of the process, the animals that become the pepperoni and the people who make it happen are all treated with respect, individuality, and dignity.  We could discuss the impacts on animals and land, but the aspect that stands out most to me presently is the impact on the people.  Once a product is produced in the volume required to appear on the shelf at Shop Rite or Whole Foods, or in the box from Amazon or Blue Apron, there is no way that it can be produced with the same level of care.  The food itself may remain objectively wholesome, but these systems depend on interchangeable and easily replaceable people doing the farming and meat processing.  Industrial food must have people specialized into tasks that can be done by rote for the least cost.  Once the process can be automated, the people performing those jobs will be dispensed with.  Until then, they are paid the least possible amount.  On our farm and in our family, we want to find ways to appreciate people, to show them respect, and to reward them for a job well done.  We want to increase human involvement, to create opportunities for people to take an interest in their daily activities, and to find satisfaction in their lives.

Can you taste integrity?  I hope so…

Pepperoni Pizza

The kids celebrated the occasion by making pepperoni pizza (of course!).

Next: Pasture Raised Lobsters

We keep adding new livestock to the farm, but this time underwater varieties.  After we dug the pond two summers ago, we added some bottom habitat for fish.  But the fresh scraped clay surface was rather barren, so we needed to give it a little time to develop some life.  We now have frogs and tadpoles, water bugs of all sorts, dragonflies, turtles, snakes, herons, ducks, geese, (and, of course, leeches courtesy of the ducks and geese) all in or around the pond, so it seems like the next phase of stocking should begin.

We set a minnow trap in the lower stream to catch minnows and crayfish.  Trapping hasn’t been spectacular, just four minnows and eight crayfish, but we only need a few to get things going.  Minnows seem to be picky eaters; they aren’t interested in the bread crusts or bits of sausage that the crayfish go after.  I’ve watched a school of about fifty minnows circle the trap, but it is rare for one to enter it.  I suppose if we fail to catch enough minnows we could always buy some, but I’d prefer to start with locally-adapted minnows.

Crayfish in trap

Crayfish in the trap.

The plan is to add bass once we get a good representation of medium sized critters in the pond, but that is probably another year or two away.  The minnows and crayfish need a thriving insect and tadpole population; the bass need a thriving minnow and crayfish population.  Of course, when we add the bass we’ll have to buy them from a fish hatchery, so maybe the quest for locally adapted minnows is made moot by the imported bass.  I don’t have time to fish all the local ponds to catch enough breeding bass, so I suppose there are limits to my localism.

I like what the pond offers the farm, especially when compared to drilling a well.  Obviously we get clean water for the livestock with a much simpler extraction method (gravity siphon versus running a deep well pump).  But the benefits go beyond that.  All sorts of wild birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals use the pond too.  The pond gives a boost of biodiversity through mixing habitats, so we support a broader spectrum of living things.  Even the two legged creatures enjoy flopping into the water on humid summer days and skating around on the ice in the winter.  If in the future we can get a few fish dinners out of it, that’s another bonus.

Last Batch of Chicks Out to Pasture

This year’s last batch of chicks is out to pasture.  They spent their first three weeks in a brooder where we can control the environment.  We keep them hot for a few days, then gradually decrease the temperature while they grow their feathers.  After three weeks they are ready for any above-freezing weather, so long as they can keep dry.  We had a close call with frost this weekend, but all the chicks came through just fine.

While on pasture they eat out of bulk feeders, but I noticed earlier this year that some chicks took a day or two to figure out the new feed arrangements.  Disrupting the eating patterns for young chicks seems to have a long tailed effect (particularly compared to a larger animal like a pig or cow going off feed for a day), so it behooves us to get these transitional details correct.  This time I placed a few of their small turbo feeders from the brooder out in the pasture coop.  It seems that helped keep everyone eating without any interruptions.  Just another little detail that makes a big difference for the chicks; I’m learning all the time…

Chicks with Turbo Feeder

Breast Obsessed

Clearly our customers have a breast obsession.  We are selling far more chicken breasts than any other cut.  Having a product that sells is great, but there’s a “however”.

Here, however, is the dilemma:  breasts are selling too quickly, while drumsticks and the soup parts (necks and backs) are piling up.  We aren’t part of the commodity market, so we can’t dump certain cuts on third world countries.  I don’t want to be scoldy here, but it is true that sustainable eating involves the responsibility to eat all the edible parts of a plant or animal.  We base our prices on the yield of each cut and the cost of producing it. We have to cover our bills.  Organic chicken feed is expensive, and so is local butchering.

Chicken Ratios

There are three ways we could resolve this problem.

First would be to breed chickens that have proportions corresponding to purchasing patterns.  Breasts 50 percent bigger, thighs 30 percent bigger, drumsticks 50 percent smaller, wings about the same, and just a tiny amount of skeleton to hold the thing together.  This option is the least desirable on a few levels…

Chicken Proportions

From the talented folks at the Wrong Direction Farm Art Department.

The second option is for us to change our prices.  You may have noticed that last month I rejiggered breasts, drumsticks, and thighs a few cents to try to reach some equilibrium, but breast sales actually increased without changing leg sales.  So after running everything through a far-too-complicated Excel sheet to rebalance sales (once an engineer, always an engineer), I arrived at the following price revisions.  This is a radical change, but it would scale price to match demand.

Chicken Price Ratio

The third option would be for everyone to change their buying habits.  For every four packages of breasts, we’d sell two packages each of thighs and drumsticks, one package of wings, and one of backs or necks.  Perhaps some normalization will occur with backs and necks once cold weather arrives and people shift towards more soups, but I’m not sure we can continue to sell chicken cuts if we don’t get more drumsticks on more plates.  There are only so many drumsticks that our family can eat.

So, my chicken-eating customers, what do you think?  I don’t want to saddle anyone with drumstick guilt.  We all have enough situations in our lives where people are telling us “you should feel guilty because you aren’t doing this!”  If you like big breasts, that’s great.  Not everyone needs to eat the legs, and certainly not every time.  But I am interested in hearing how you weigh price versus preference.  Somehow we’ve achieved a better balance in our pork and beef sales, so we need to figure out this chicken thing.

Meeting With My Constituents

Every time I walk through the pigs’ pastures, they congregate around me, scratching their backs on my legs, chewing on my boots, and just generally getting in the way.  Younger pigs are leery of humans, but once they get into the 150 pound range there is a noticeable change in their ratio of fear to curiosity.  Younger pigs will wander over to sniff me and then bolt away, but older ones will stick around for scratches behind the ears.

At this time of year it is fine and fun, but there are situations in deep mud or snow where it become precarious to have 4000 lb mob of pigs bumping, nibbling, and shoving from all sides.

Here’s a short video of them visiting with me.  They were on good behavior today.

Fire and Ice

I spent my day at the extremes of fire and ice.

During the morning I repaired the tractor loader quick attach mounts.  They have been replaced before, but for $240 for the set, this time I decided to straighten them and see if I can coax a little more life out of them.  I’ve seen a few others of this series loader bent in the same way, so I blame Case/New Holland’s flimsy design.  I used the oxy-propane rosebud to heat a 5/8″ thick section (two 5/16″ layers stacked together) up to glowing red, then went after it hammer and tongs until it was pretty close to its original shape.  Initial testing looks good, but I haven’t done any heavy backblading to put it to the test.

Skid Steer Lock

1500 degrees F, more or less.


In the afternoon I was in the walk-in freezers sorting chicken and pork, trying to organize my chaos of boxes and crates.  One of the freezers has an insufficient pitch for the condensate line, so it dumps its defrost cycle water through the overhead grille onto the freezer floor.  Rather than fix it properly, I’ve placed a tote underneath to catch the drippings.  During the winter we don’t get a lot of water, but during the humid summer the tote fills up every month.  This time I let it get too far, so it was a heavy 30 gallon block of ice.

Ice Block

A Brobdingnagian ice cube, -10 degrees F.

At Long Last

Rachel started planting an orchard six years ago after I cleared the sumac and brush behind the house.  Our first crop of peaches are just ripening.  It has been a long wait for that first taste.  These peaches are a delight.

Shall I Eat a Peach

Do I dare to quote T.S. Eliot?

My Hay Habit

This year we’ll spend a little above $10,000 for hay for the cattle, not counting about $1500 for low-quality bedding hay for the pigs.  Unlike the chicken feed, which costs a few thousand bucks every month or two, the summer hay bills all hit at once.  Buying from neighbors adds a little cushion since everyone understands that we run short, but we don’t want to push the community line of credit too far either.  Robert Frost could have added “Good payments make good neighbors” to Mending Wall.  Shown above is a small portion of the hay we’re stockpiling for next winter.

One of the things I’ve tried over the last few years is planting annual grasses to allow us to supplement our summer grazing in order to stockpile for fall grazing.  In theory this cuts down hay bills.  In my limited experience, this just seems to add tractor work and seed bills.

This year I planted sorghum sudangrass.  It went in late due to a wet spring, so we got our first grazing this week.  Some spots were spectacularly deep green and four feet tall, but most of the field was just ankle high due to early summer flooding.  It seems that unless we had better soils (soils that could consistently worked earlier than mid-June as is the case here), we really shouldn’t be messing with annuals.  There are some years when annual crops could work well, but yields are so sporadic that many years I don’t think I’d come close to breaking even.  Two acres of sudangrass yielded two days of grazing for 49 head of cattle (calves, cows, and finishers).  I’ll get one more grazing before frost finishes it off.  For the cost of the seed and the time spent discing and planting, I’d be much better off with even a low-grade weedy pasture.  Still, this is a useful lesson to learn.  Everyone at all the grassfed conferences and magazines wants to promote cropping and “forage chains”, but it is helpful to try and to fail, so I can learn practically what this climate and geography can support.

Grazing Sorghum

Cattle starting to graze

Finished Sorghum

Same spot, the next day